Entertainment-wise, a motherfucker:
critical race politics and the transnational movement of
Melvin van Peebles
This article argues that that transnational movement of Melvin van Peebles is crucial in ending the dearth in African American feature film production in the United States after Oscar Micheaux’s The Betrayal (1948). By establishing himself as a global auteur, van Peebles uniquely navigates the film industry with his first three films and develops a critical race politics that questions the role of American exceptionalism in Hollywood. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) is a focal point for considering van Peebles’ political aesthetics, but I argue that in addition this third feature-length film is the culmination of a larger project that focuses on the director’s playing industry aesthetics and practices in a minor key. In doing so, van Peebles responds to the civil rights movement in a manner now eschewed in contemporary remembering, which privileges American exceptionalism. Within this framework, I read his films as a direct challenge to this historical dismantling of radical political projects concerning disenfranchised populations in the United States, projects that include an indictment of U.S. empire. Such a case study is particularly important today with recent films from Hidden Figures (2016) to Moonlight (2016) returning to a similar divergence in the politics of films depicting U.S. race relations.
Writing about his inspiration for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Melvin van Peebles explains that the film had to be “entertainment-wise, a motherfucker” to satisfy market conditions and deliver a political message about race in the United States. [open endnotes in new window] Though his goal in making Sweet Sweetback’s was explicitly political, van Peebles understood that in order to navigate the audience/industry desires that drive cinema-going and exhibition, such a politics would have to take hybrid form. He reasons,
“The film simply couldn’t be a didactic discourse… The Man has an Achilles pocket and he might go along with you if at least there is some bread in it for him. But he ain’t about to go carrying no messages for you, especially a relevant one, for free.”
While van Peebles is perhaps best remembered for the audacity of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, he develops his strategies for navigating industry and exhibition currents in his earlier two films, Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968)and Watermelon Man (1970). In these, he strategically deals with both the French film industry and Hollywood, catering to the industrial demands of each project in order to inject them with a critical race politics that make them speak anew.
In other words, “entertainment-wise, a motherfucker” underpins a political philosophy that runs throughout his work. When he argues that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song needs to be “entertainment-wise, a motherfucker,” van Peebles articulates his political strategy of transnational hybridization that moves between commercial, auteur-driven, and radical political aesthetics in order to address racial conflict in the United States of the 60s and 70s. Rather than always being about entertainment, however, this strategy highlights the way in which van Peebles isolates the Achilles heel of any industry in order to force it to carry his message, whether that be studio-driven films, art cinema, or independent cinema. Van Peebles articulates this strategy quite independently of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s works in which they discuss ‘minor literatures’ or ‘minor cinemas,’ but the resonance is worth bearing in mind for their argument that within each dominant mode of representation, there is a suppression of entire communities, which come to the fore when that articulation is played in a minor key.
In their original articulation in Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (1975), Deleuze and Guattari compare minor literatures to “what blacks in America today are able to do with the English language,” referencing African American Vernacular English. Van Peebles extends this kind of thinking into the realm of filmmaking. For example, Courtney Bates argues that van Peebles integrates “distinctly African American semiotic codes in order to subvert the mainstream origins of its story structure” in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. I raise this reading of Peebles’ work as a form of minor cinema to draw upon the articulation of the political potential of such works. In particular, Deleuze and Guattari argue that minor literatures/cinemas “express another possible community,” and “forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility.” For van Peebles, this other sensibility shapes his political aesthetics of consciousness raising, and he is sensitive to the U.S. colonial legacy in a way that is particularly poignant in the context of his times, especially the events surrounding 1968 and global efforts then towards decolonization. Van Peebles’s crucial extension of an argument such as Deleuze and Guattari articulate is not only that his films give voice to the under- or misrepresented, but that his work provides an alternative understanding of history. And in this case, racial history was being obfuscated in the United States in order to promote American exceptionalism. Van Peebles’ work illustrates this process so remarkably especially because within his first three feature-length films he moves through three distinct industries and excavates those voices/histories in each.
In this trajectory, van Peebles maneuvers of a number of cinematic forms: second cinema, first cinema, and third cinema following his trilogy historically. I borrow this global heuristic of cinematic forms from Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino not only because their categorizations map onto van Peebles’s trilogy, but also because he moves transnationally himself. Transnational movement is key to understanding van Peebles’s politics because he positions his own racial critique of the United States in relation to global movements against colonialism and Empire. This becomes his way of providing a critical perspective on the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement. As Cynthia Young argues in Soul Power, such a perspective is needed:
“Characterized by racial myopia and North American exceptionalism, [a] New Left-centric historiography has diminished the influence of domestic movements for racial and economy equality and international liberation struggles.”
Furthermore, in the 1960s and now, film industries also contribute to this notion of North American exceptionalism, through films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Van Peebles counters this by denying the suggestion of an emancipatory teleology moving towards a freer society by acknowledging the colonial underpinnings of the United States itself and their continued operation through cinematic institutions at the levels of genre, industry, and representation. Van Peebles’s skepticism, contemporaneous with civil rights, finds validation for us today in the continued critical race politics of Black Lives Matter.
In our own time, “entertainment-wise, a motherfucker” becomes the expression of a carefully articulated political strategy that presages a response to Mahnola Dargis and A.O. Scott’s article, “Watching While White: How Movies Tackled Race in 2016.” Scott notes a trend in films such as Fences (2016), Hidden Figures (2016), and Loving (2016) as they return to the 50s and 60s, “amid all the injustices and unresolved contradictions, civic progress, a sense of national purpose, and expansiveness” … “without abandoning Hollywood feel-good conventions.” As racial tension is on the rise in the United States, as I am writing from the beginning of 2018, the response these recent films from 2016 give to that tension resembles the studio response of the 1960s to the civil rights movement with films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It’s a film which is not critical of racial tension as much as affirmative of certain liberal fallacies that mitigate real structural critique. This kind of cinematic narrative contributes, as Aziz Rana argues, to a
“vision of the country as intrinsically—if incompletely—liberal [that] systematically deemphasizes those forms of economic and political subordination that continue to mark the experience of historically marginalized communities.”
The above films’ affective responses to civil rights issues disentangle contemporary structural inequality from the histories of colonialism and Empire. This contemporary repeat of the 60s has a film aesthetics that emphasizes a liberal teleology and affirmation of U.S. creedal politics, especially in relation to Black Lives Matter, a movement that acknowledges that such a liberal teleology is a fallacy. Such a retrograde nostalgia about struggle in contemporary cinema emphasizes for me the importance of van Peebles’s transnational movements and connection to larger political aesthetics actively engaged with Empire. As Young notes,
“the appellation Third World served as a shorthand for leftists of color in the United States, signifying their opposition to a particular economic and racial world order.”
Situating van Peebles’s work in relation to this political framework of U.S. colonial history illustrates the importance of his work both at home and abroad, as well as the massive positive response to a film like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song among political groups like the Black Panthers. Young’s argument that these politics have been historically deemphasized also helps to explain van Peebles’s relatively quick decline in popularity and why Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song has quickly faded from U.S. consciousness, whereas Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remains.
In fact, in 2017 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was inducted into the U.S. Library of Congress film registry, a seeming facile response to Black Lives Matters. This same year, I responded to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies committee’s call for Library of Congress nominations by supporting the induction of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for its relevance given the contemporary political climate. The committee responded that they would indeed pass on my recommendation, but that this film had been recommended many times before to no avail. Given the history of its failed recommendation, I don’t make this point to isolate the individual choices of the Librarian of Congress, but to illustrate the ways in which structural affirmation of American exceptionalism proceeds. I would not deny the presence of significant political films in the National Film Registry, but wish to illustrate that certain films get privileged by public memory and others do not, and also to identify what political issues cross the line of violating creedal narratives. The reconciliation of race relations in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner seems appropriate, whereas the police brutality and ensuing violence of films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979) get left out. Analyzing this politics of selecting films for a national registry and preservation reveals several specific instances where the state has upheld American creedal narratives and marginalized radical politics. The particular instance here is part of a long, historical process.
To make an argument for understanding van Peebles’s trilogy as a critique of American creedal narratives, I will start by situating this trilogy within its political moment. There was a dearth of films made by African Americans to which van Peebles responds, and a context of Black radical politics that shapes his response. I will then explain the importance of understanding his political approach. In this regard, I have found useful Jean-Luc Comolli and Paul Narboni’s categorization of political cinemas, which identifies filmmaking approaches that alter dominant signifying regimes; such a categorization avoids capitulating to American creedal politics as industry standards. Significantly, in the case of van Peebles, his work is tied to his own global movement, which informs his political response to Empire – a key facet of political positions in the 1960s critical of American creedal politics. Finally, I will illustrate the ways in which each film approaches questions of Empire. Understanding van Peebles original trilogy as critical of Empire excavates its political importance for today, almost a half-century later, where many relatively popular ‘political’ films still observe conservative strategies that obfuscate the United States’ colonial underpinnings.
Lily-white unions and third world folks: the contradictions of American exceptionalism and Empire
In his self-written account of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, van Peebles recounts his desire to go into filmmaking,
“The biggest obstacle to the Black revolution in America is our conditioned susceptibility to the white man’s program… and it is with this starting point in mind and the intention to reverse the process that I went into cinema in the first fucking place.”
The more he became acquainted with the film industry, however, the more he realized that correcting racial representation was perhaps secondary to creating opportunities for African Americans to work in the U.S. film industry in fundamental roles. A key site of this challenge was working with unions within the “lily-White fortress,” as he would later describe the film industry of the late 60s. With the Columbia picture Watermelon Man under his belt, van Peebles decided that with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, “I wanted 50% of my shooting crew to be third world people.” The dialectic he establishes here between the white majority industry and crews including people of color is important for two key reasons. First, rather than focus on racial representation, which the industry already began acknowledging in its own problematic way during this time, he approaches race in terms of structural inequality and exclusion. Such an approach aligns with Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation with its focus on systemic thinking, and Aziz Rana’s conception of a “settler empire.” Second, he explicitly uses the term ‘third world’ to refer to people of color, which implicates the U.S. role in global Empire, and aligns him with the political movements that have a transnational consciousness. In each case, van Peebles worked against notions of American exceptionalism that were actively being articulated in the U.S. mainstream in response to civil rights movements.
The term American exceptionalism has been used to attempt to describe what makes the United States unique as a global power, from its resistance to communism to its seeming integration of diversity within its concept of the nation. For example, in The First New Nation, political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset argues that two key values, equality and achievement, mark this exceptionalism:
“The value we have attributed to achievement is a corollary to our belief in equality. For people to be equal, they need a chance to become equal. Success, therefore, should be attainable by all, no matter what the accidents of birth, class, or race.”
Lipset acknowledges that his account of American exceptionalism is an attempt to reconcile the presence of corruption and inequality in the United States with this ideology of achievement, but nonetheless what marks the country out as unique is that, unlike nations in Central and South America that subsequently broke away from colonial rule, the United States developed “a relatively integrated social structure.” The civil rights movement thus illustrates a key moment in articulating this process towards American exceptionalism, with its ideology of equality and achievement. Such exceptionalism, however, relies on a creedal narrative of the United States being defined against other colonial Empires.
By acknowledging U.S. colonial underpinnings, black radicals such as Carmichael and Hamilton establish links between the struggles for civil rights in the United States and larger decolonial movements abroad, such as those taking place in Africa and Asia. In this context, van Peebles’ desire to hire ‘third world folks’ is not an offhand reference to race or class, but an articulation in line with those radicals. Rana explains this link between the United States and struggles abroad:
“Black radicals recognized […] the struggle of nonwhite groups in the American interior was much like the struggle of nonwhite groups around the world. As Carmichael and Hamilton put it, the ‘institutional racism’ of the domestic United States ought to be known by ‘another name: colonialism’ […] Twentieth-century black radicals thus imagined revolutionary reform in terms of decolonization. Independence movements in the third world were in the midst of fighting to transfer economic and political power from imperial elites to the historically colonized, and the same kind of transfer was necessary in the US.”
To return to van Peebles, this transfer of power might begin to take place through the director’s navigation of film industries, from French, to American, and eventually to independent film production. It’s a symbolic small-scale decolonization he achieves with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The Black Panther’s endorsement of that filmillustrates van Peebles’s success in integrating into this larger conversation, with Huey P. Newton writing in The Black Panther that it would be required viewing for Panthers.